In my last post, I wrote about my trip to Crystal River, a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida where large herds of manatees spend the winter.
Crystal River is on King’s Bay, which is fed by a series of freshwater springs bubbling up at a constant 72 degrees. In winter, the manatees gather there because the spring water is warmer than the Gulf.
In Part 1, I described a day of snorkeling at Three Sisters Springs. This post is about Day Two, when I went back to the springs in a kayak.
I went back to the same spot to compare the below-water and above-water experiences. I also wanted to take more photos. The day before, I had used a small underwater film camera, and I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the pictures.
Kayaks rentals are everywhere in Crystal River. I found an outfitter on the south side of town that has a dock in its back yard. From there, it was a short, easy paddle through the residential canals to Three Sisters Springs.
The weather was perfect: sunny, calm, 75 degrees. I arrived to the same scene as the day before: a cluster of tour boats, a swarm of swimmers and kayakers, and a small herd of manatees, the latter staying just out of reach in the roped-off safe zone.
When I planned a day of kayaking, I intended to bring along a swim mask and fins, so I could stop and get in the water when the spirit moved me.
But it wasn’t to be. Local regulations don’t allow kayakers to tie off to a tree or the shoreline. In other words, most of your swimming would be in pursuit of your own kayak.
That was the bad news. The good news: sitting atop a kayak is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the manatees. For the next several hours, that’s what I did.
Initially, I stayed close to the safe zone, watching manatees come and go. I also had a good view as the swimmers and kayakers interacted with them. Seeing the animals from a kayak isn’t as dramatic as seeing them underwater, but the view still is surprisingly good.
Eventually, it was time to paddle into the spectacular lagoon that is the source of the Three Sisters Springs.
The mouth to the lagoon is protected by iron pilings that prevent boats larger than kayaks from entering. That seems unnecessary, considering that the entrance is already plenty narrow and restrictive.
On the other hand, it would only take one person with an outboard motor, fueled by too many beers, to wreak havoc in the lagoon and demonstrate that the pilings are needed. Maybe it already happened.
By any measure, the lagoon is a stunning place — beautiful and pristine. I could have floated there all day, grooving on the peace and serenity.
FYI, the lagoon at Three Sisters Springs is spectacular not only because of the water, but also because of the land around it: a vacant 58-acre tract in the heart of Crystal River.
For years, that tract was in private hands, always at risk of development. It escaped the bulldozers because its owners, who wanted to sell the property, preferred that it be preserved in its natural state, not developed as homes or apartments.
In 2010, Citrus County and the City of Crystal River reached an agreement with the owners and purchased the property. It is now protected as a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The tract will open to the public soon. A boardwalk already has been built around the lagoon.
In the end, I drifted around the lagoon and listened to the silence for about half an hour. Only occasionally was I interrupted by other kayakers or swimmers.
Later, when I emerged from the lagoon, I decided to paddle west toward the open bay, to see what I could see. The day was still sunny and calm, the temp still under 80 degrees.
Several times, I paused to watch groups of snorkelers or kayakers clustered around a manatee, or a mother and baby, or a small group en route to somewhere else.
You have to sympathize with the poor beasts. Under ordinary conditions, they are minding their own business, either eating, sleeping, or migrating.
Then, for reasons they can’t fathom, their space is invaded by humans in wetsuits, legs flailing, or by oblong pieces of colored plastic, floating on the surface and following them as if by magnetic attraction.
The local outfitters preach to the tourists diligently about the rules of manatee encounters. They counsel us to keep our distance, move slowly, and avoid hassling the creatures in any way.
But in practice, some people get excited and over-eager. They pursue the manatees too closely or block their passage. I’m sure the manatees find these people as irritating as the rest of us do.
But fortunately, most of the tourists are restrained and respectful. Consider the tour boat full of young teen boys that I came across.
The group consisted of about a dozen boys and two tour guides, a man on the boat and a woman in the water. The boat had paused at the mouth of a residential canal that, at the time, was a manatee safe zone.
(The authorities usually don’t create a safe zone and wait for the manatees to find it. They identify places where the manatees congregate and rope them off.)
The canal being a safe zone, manatees were steadily arriving and departing, and the boat had dropped anchor where the action was.
I paddled up to the boat slowly. Several of the boys were in the water. The rest were leaning over the side, stroking the back of a lone manatee.
“Easy does it,” the male tour guide told the boys in a calm voice. “This one is young and curious. Don’t spook him.”
The boys on the boat jockeyed for position, but stayed quiet. The boys in the water peered at the circling manatee through their swim masks.
“Let him come to you,” said the female guide in the same calm voice.
The manatee swam in a tight circle next to the boat. He didn’t seem to mind being touched. Sometimes, his nostrils broke the surface, and he breathed deeply and went under again. The boys on the boat whispered excitedly among themselves.
For several more minutes, the manatee swam slowly around the boys, appearing, as the guide said, quite curious.
But then the manatee turned and began to swim away in the direction of the safe zone. The boys let out a collective yelp of disappointment.
“Don’t follow him,” said the male guide. “He’s playing with you. If you swim after him, he’ll keep going. Stay put. He’ll come back.”
He was right. Hardly a minute later, the manatee reappeared. He swam through the group in the water, rolling on his back as he passed.
Several times, the manatee passed next to the boys, circled around, and passed them again. Each time, the boys patted and scratched his back and sides.
Then, very slowly, and for the first time, the manatee propelled himself directly toward one of the boys. Instead of swimming in lazy circles, he approached the boy head first.
The boy never moved an inch. He floated motionless, head down, watching through his mask as the manatee drifted up to him.
Ultimately, the two of them were less than six inches apart, nose to nose. For several seconds, neither of them moved. The only sound was the clicking of cameras.
I watched, fascinated, as the young boy and the young manatee looked at each other at close range. Long seconds passed. Then the manatee veered away and swam off into the safe zone, this time for good.
What the two of them shared at that moment, I can only guess. But there’s no doubt that the boy will remember the encounter vividly for the rest of his life.
I saw plenty of manatees at Crystal River, and I got plenty of photos. Most of the shots are interesting, but forgettable.
The photo I really wanted, which the boy in the water saw so memorably in person, was a shot of a manatee head-on and close up.
Although that photo eluded me at Crystal River, I got it the following week at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Florida.
It happened at Mosquito Lagoon, a remote spot on the Intracoastal Waterway where manatees stop to feed while migrating. From a viewing deck overlooking the site, armed with my big Nikon and my best zoom lens, I patiently took photo after photo.
This is my favorite.